How Work Culture Shapes Career Advice for Women

1. The Job Offer

Before accepting a recent job offer, I asked friends and mentors how I should negotiate.

“Go for everything,” Raya advised. “Relocation, housing, a bigger salary… maybe they’ll pay for utilities set-up fees? My library did.”

“Don’t negotiate,” Jillian said. “Lean In said that women never win when they negotiate.”

“Why do you feel like you need to negotiate?” Mark asked.

I paused. “I have leverage. And people say that women deserve our lower salaries because we don’t push as hard.”

“Don’t negotiate just because you think men do,” Mark said. “If you like the offer, you can just take the job.”

… I think about these exchanges when I read advice to workers, in which affluent male leaders are held up as the ideal worker: they negotiate. They take risks. They play politics.

But so do we. Yet many of us face double binds at work: women should wear makeup… but they aren’t serious if they’re attractive. Millennials shouldn’t be so selfish… but it’s your responsibility to advocate for yourself. 

So we’re told to go for it. But at the same time to step back, hold on, cool down.

2. The Tenure Track Job

A friend recently accepted a tenure-track job. Marta* has competitive credentials, dozens of publications, and years of post-doctoral teaching experience. She’d gone anywhere, even away from her husband and children, to build her expertise.

“…and so I negotiated for more, for a travel budget and a higher salary,” she commented over a glass of wine. “They said they’ll get back to me.”

She’s a little worried. “I hope I was right to negotiate. But how could I not? After all—that’s what a man would do.”

3. The Loyal Librarian

I met a data librarian recently at a conference. Alex had been in a new job for a year, but struggles with the sense that it’s not a good “fit.” Yet even while there’s a wide market for data librarians,  she feels obligated to stay on and help the people who hired her, as well as build her resume.

“I feel like I should stay and be loyal,” Alex says.

“But then I think: a man would never worry about this. He would just go and get another job, and advance his career.”

What a Man Would Do

So in my professional world, I keep hear the rhetoric of What a Man Would Do. It urges ambitious young women to put self-promotion first. It shortcuts how we discern when and where to make career moves, and urges us to push ahead, lest we be left behind.

So Raya says to ask for everything. Marta keeps negotiating in an ambiguous situation. And Alex feels torn between compassion for her coworkers, and concern that she’ll get left behind if she stays too long.

Yet somehow, we’ve framed our workplace decisions around a mythical “man.”

Of course, I know the many cultural, political, and economic factors that put male and female workers under immense pressure: a shaky American economy, no safety net, age discrimination, layoffs and temp work, and accelerating demands at work and at home. We make choices within these constraints.

But for now, let’s look at choices: how we make and how we frame them.

How to Make Hard Choices

In her TED talk below, Ruth Chang talks about our hardest dilemmas:

She suggests that our toughest choices aren’t when one thing is clearly better, but instead between two “incommensurate” things that can’t be evenly valued against each other:

  • Do I keep having fun traveling, or return home to care for an aging family member?
  • Do I stay in my job to help colleagues, or move on for a great opportunity?
  • Do I settle down in a challenging but good relationship, or hold out for a better fit later?
  • Do I enjoy children, or the fruitfulness of another calling in the world?

Ruth suggests that both men and women face hard choices precisely when both options have value, and you can’t easily show that one is better than the other. And she suggests that precisely in that complexity comes our freedom to shape our own lives, and choose what kind of people we will become.

Gender and Workplace Choices

Whether by nature or nurture, I feel like women in America have both the freedom and the painfulness of hard choices more often than men. In Wonder Women, Spar writes that modern workers are taught to constantly exceed each other in long work hours, travel, and focus… no matter what other commitments we have to parents, children, or partners.

Yet we’re also told to put relationships first, maintain a beautiful or handsome appearance, have children while fertile, and support those around us. Man Who Has it All parodies this impossible perfection by transferring the expectations to men:

Thinking of our choices, I reflected on what Marta and Alex were saying:

“A man wouldn’t worry about this.” “A man would negotiate.” “A man would leave.” “A man would…”

What does it mean?

Always On? Questions to Ponder 

Above, I suggested that choices are especially loaded for women, who are told to choose between family or calling, or be overwhelmed by the demands of both. It seems that competing American cultural values tear at women in particularly deep ways. 

In Competing Devotions, Mary Blair-Loy talks with female finance executives about the immense pressure on the ideal worker to show work devotion by being always-on and always in the office, and family devotion by being always attentive to the needs of those within their family… a tension that any working family member is familiar with.

These competing values increasingly tear at  men, too. In All In: how our work-first culture fails dads, Josh Levs argues that men need the right to be fathers, spouses, and sons, and not just workers.

Questions: 

I get that, and so I end with questions for us all:

1. Is there a better way to frame our choices than “what a man would do”?

2. Why set up competing ideals of career vs. relationship, when most of us want both?

3. Can we adjust so that women aren’t pulled home first with an infant or disabled child? If couples can’t afford childcare, should we have more social support of working households?

4. At work, can we shift the work devotion schema to see people with outside commitments as just as committed to their career and firm?

5. And given the reality that a lot of not-fun labor makes a household or business work, how can we provide better for those (cleaners, support staff, childcare workers) who provide for us?

4 Comments

  1. Marilyn R. Pukkila March 30, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    I suspect that one of the reasons for the women asking the “what would a man do” question is that those asking it are measuring themselves against an archetypal “top-notch worker” — and that archetype is, alas, almost always male/masculine. Do men ask themselves “what would a REAL man do” (another mythic archetype!) questions, I wonder?

    Of course, the variables are so complex in a job-seeking situation; who knows what *this* potential boss considers to be desirable in a worker? And, unfortunately, one doesn’t know if the potential boss (and how many of you envisioned a man when you read that phrase?) has any overt or subconscious ideas of gender differences for the “ideal” worker. Add on other layers like race/ethnicity, age, orientation, and all the other things we’re “not supposed to” consider, and it becomes such a tied-up-in-knots exercise that it seems to me that the best thing to choose is what YOU think is best, rather than what the potential boss might think is best. There are just too many variables to try and suss out, so go for that which is most authentic for you, I would say.

  2. I suspect it’s also the fear of getting left behind, e.g. if ‘guys’ are trained to do X, and I don’t do it, then I’m to blame for not making it in some sense. Guys must feel similar pressure but I’m not sure why they see as ideal, as you say.

    And your advice to not try to predict everything ahead is quite solid — it’s nearly impossible to be able to predict strategies, moves, and others’ responses in advance!

  3. I don’t know that any man can really understand the perspective a woman has on the job market. The reality is that most industries are male-dominated and positions that are more commonly pursued by women appear to also yield a lower wage…

    I also think there’s a big difference in how either gender approaches a career path between when they have dependents, partners, or are single. When you’re pursuing goals that require risk or self-denial, it changes the game significantly… Men historically see their identity as provider and so they’re more conditioned to view career paths through the lens of opportunity, aggressive pursuit, and deferring more subjective goals for financial benefit… The other part that is more hidden is the underlying value system someone carries — are they more concerned with fulfillment, honor/duty, achievement, affirmation, affluence, etc.? …

    I think I’m a bit disturbed by the “a man would…” conjectures discussed as well. I don’t suspect many men would consider “a woman would” as a viewpoint. Honestly, I don’t think the “a man would” contemplation is really about men as much as its about what other women would be thinking a woman should do, so as not to let other women down… That is terrific pressure that men don’t live under. I don’t even think minorities live quite the same associative pressure that women feel as obligation to conform to the gender identity.

    Another challenge is the unstated-yet-unchallenged idea that gender is a reality that does force decisions of trade-offs and that both genders are not equivalent in the negotiation of life. David Brooks in a NY Times article a couple of days ago on Sexual Politics (it is really about Trump) delves into the way now “both men and women are called upon to live up to the ideals of both genders” and how the Trump phenomenon is leveraging a rejection of that expectation. Much of the tension would be better resolved if we were more open about gender-correlated challenges…

    In my workplace there is substantial effort to give women similar opportunity as men… but there is a clear difference in expectation — the specific positions more commonly held by men have the expectation that employees need to be available for off-hours needs…. this does not appear to handicap women’s promotional opportunities, but this apparent double-standard does produce resentment among the men.

    My last thought might be the most controversial — what is it about contemporary (western) women that seem to make them uncomfortable with womanhood? Our [cross-cultural experience] was so different particularly because women didn’t seem to need to battle over gender and equivalency, etc. I’m sure some of it is because the culture afforded women much power in the arena of family and property, but there was also a particular reverence for motherhood that seemed to quell the perception of irreconcilable competition between family and professional pursuits. Too bad modern feminism can’t find that same sweet-spot in identity for women.

    • So many good thoughts. I wonder if women feel more pressure to ‘succeed’ on behalf of younger generations of women, while men feel more pressure to ‘succeed’ because that’s the measure men are judged on. Not pleasant either way!

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